Graves, swamps and slums in Argentina's capital
Recoleta Cemetery & San Telmo
A cobblestone-lined barrio for the dead, Recoleta stuns you with its overwhelming grays and blacks. It really does feel like intersecting city blocks, down to the main avenues which branch off into little alleyways. Some of the mausoleums are well kept, like Evita’s and Raúl Alfonsín’s, but others have been left to decay and crumble, mansions no one can afford to maintain anymore.
Get lost down the little alleyways and watch as the skyscrapers of the city disappear around you. More importantly, try to find where we buried the joke about how the rent for each mausoleum is cheaper than ours in Brooklyn.
The famous antiques market of San Telmo is full of kitsch you actually want to buy. As intrepid a traveler as you think you might be, as serious a foodie or as immersed an ex-pat, the market will demote you to the role of gaping tourist by sheer force of its authenticity. Instead of living statues and jugglers there are old tango masters, dressed glamorously and sitting pristinely. Perhaps they will deign to dance with you for a moment if they feel inclined, but make no mistake: you are graced by their presence, not the other way around.
Antique seltzer bottles line many stalls. According to my cousins, they still get delivered door-to-door, though now they look more like Sodastreams, plastic instead of glass.
We'd heard that Boca, a famous working class neighborhood in Buenos Aires, was dangerous, though a little less than it had been. This being our first time there, we had nothing to which to compare its safety, and my imagination began running wild as to what this might mean. A little less dangerous? Instead of mugging you at gunpoint, now it's usually just at knifepoint. They won't kidnap you in broad daylight anymore, just late afternoon and occasionally in the shade.
Suffice to say, I was constantly on alert while still pretending not to be. While I'm sure it is still not a place to be caught in at night with a money suit, my actual experience of walking there and back made me wonder how dangerous Boca really was now, and in what way.
To me, it least, the neighborhood seemed to be undergoing the same sort of gentrification and cultural assimilation that Bushwick and many other working-class neighborhoods have gone through, but how extensive that change has been, and if it is still happening, is difficult to tell.
Part of that is because the neighborhood is already famous for a ramshackle beauty. Rowhouses line the street named Caminito, their walls colored like a child's playground with used ships' hull paint brought home by local dockworkers. The product of extreme poverty, these houses are now the sole reason for Boca's international fame, and the potential source of its redevelopment. They maintain their painted ghetto look, for they must, but the entire street is a bit of a tourist trap.
On our way from San Telmo, a couple of blocks from Caminito, past the Bombonera, we walked through streets of beautiful Parisian townshouses that once belonged to an upper middle class that had long since fled. They seemed mostly run down, but were they actually? Or were they in that state of beautiful decay lauded by the gentrifier? They definitely appeared to still be lived in.
We emerged on the waterfront, at the boca of Boca, the mouth of the Matanza river. An art museum was on our right, and the walkway along the harbor featured painted tiles that mimicked the famous painted houses of the street we’d just walked down. But the farther away we walked the less sure I was about what had changed, what was changing, and what was allowed to simply decay a its own pace.
Naively, we decided to walk along the water with the intention of going all the way up to Puerto Madero, another waterfront neighborhood that had changed in recent years. Almost immediately that plan fell apart: just out of view of the art museum the walkway dead ended, hard, and the dirt path that followed led straight under an overpass to an actual dock with actual dockworkers. We continued anyway, walking under the bridge and turning onto a street that seemed to run parallel to the water, in the hopes of meeting up with it again.
But no sooner had we turned onto this street than we came upon a man, wearing an apron and operating a homemade oil drum grill. He was in the middle of the street, blocking off traffic as if for a block party, except that aside from him the street was empty. Overgrown weeds poked over the garden fences of the houses, trash littered the sidewalk. At the other end of the street there may have been another man, also with a grill or some other sort of barricade.
He seemed friendly enough, but he looked us up and down as we approached him, and, using his tongs, he politely but firmly shooed us back the way we had come. Were we interrupting something? Or was he waving us away for our own safety, having clearly and correctly identified us as tourists?
We walked back a ways, and then up again, this time down a wider, more populated avenue. Thirsty now, we parked ourselves in a corner bistro in the old-fashioned Argentine style, not particularly fancy but still with white tablecloths and suited waiters with napkins over their arms. One of them walked up, and before handing us our menus he warned me to keep my camera on me at all times, don’t even put it on the table. It was unmistakable this time: these streets were dangerous, and the locals knew it.
But again, I began to doubt: we were indoors. It was daytime. The restaurant was nearly empty. How likely was it that I would actually be robbed? Or was the waiter just so used to a Boca filled with petty crime that it had become second nature to him to warn tourists like us of a danger that, like his professional demeanor and dress, was quickly becoming anachronistic?
It was impossible to know for sure. Impossible, even, to say if the locals knew for sure. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in Buenos Aires is much wider than their proximity to each other.
Whatever the truth may be it is clear that Boca would be a different place if it found itself in the safe shadow of a high rise condo, or the patron of a riverside Montessori school. The constant but mild hint of peril provided an essential contrast that made its bright walls bolder.
It had taken about three hours to get to this tiny island outside of Buenos Aires criss-crossed by canals, and all there was to do was sit and watch the boats go by. And drink, of course. Our waitress kindly boxed our tall glass bottles of Quilmes in custom fitted styrofoam sleeves to keep them cool in the slight humidity. We asked her when the next river ferry back to the train station was, and she just shrugged. Every hour or so, she said, as if even that time frame was too specific.
Buenos Aires finds little ways to speed you up. The boulevards are extra wide and the crosswalk lights are comparatively very short. It sets the pace and you hurry to keep up. Tigre, on the other hand, is slow and muddy. It sets the pace and you, traumatized still by the big city from which you’ve just arrived, hurry to slow down.
Located on the Paraná delta at the mouth of the river Plata, Tigre is where porteños come for the weekend or the summer. Some live here full time, as evidenced by the school kids who shared our ferry upriver on their way home. As we reached our stop, I wondered how many of them commuted into the city. It was technically an outer suburb, the very last stop on one of the commuter lines, but to throw yourself back into the hustle seemed to defeat the purpose of living here in the first place.
It took us five minutes to walk half the island in search of lunch. We passed on the first restaurant we saw but settled arbitrarily on the second (and only other) one a hundred yards down a stone path. The mud around the path was wet and deep, as it must be perpetually, but the restaurant was on slightly higher ground. On the other side of the canal was a gas station, and as we ate milanesa napolitana de pollo (basically chicken parm) and steak sandwiches, the entirety of our entertainment came from trying to guess which of the speedboats that would put-put up and down the shallow muddy water would stop at the gas station, and which would pass it by.
The meal ended, and we found ourselves ambling back to the ferry. We’d seen it all, without going anywhere. We passed summer homes in various styles, this one modeled after an alpine lodge, that one more like a hobbit hole. We saw them all again, and one more time, our paces slower with each pass, as three different ferries passed us by, sloshing warm brown wakes of water onto people’s lawns.